Seeking solutions for the developmental education conundrum

Creative approaches hope to increase student retention, speed degree progression

Developmental education is necessary for many students—but traditional models can discourage them and impede their academic progress, prompting many colleges to seek new solutions, writes Kenneth Cooper in Diverse Education.

Around 60% of community college applicants fail at least one of the English and math skill assessments while completing the application process, according to the Community College Research Center. Those who fail the tests must complete one or more remedial courses, which do not carry any credit towards their degree, before starting regular, credit-bearing classes. This developmental requirement significantly contributes to the low student retention rates at two-year institutions, writes Cooper.

"Worst case, it actually discourages and creates barriers to students and can be, honestly, downright demoralizing," says Noah Brown, president and CEO of the Association of Community College Trustees.

Of those students required to take remedial courses before enrolling for college-level credits, less than 10% graduate from community college within three years, according to a 2012 report from Complete College America.

In an effort to boost retention and degree completion, many schools have turned to alternative approaches for developmental education:

  • Co-enrollment: Students enroll in developmental and college-level courses simultaneously, preventing them from falling too far behind credit-wise.

  • Competency-based courses: Students work at their own pace to master the skills they need, allowing them to catch up before a traditional semester ends.

  • Abandoning algebra: Substituting statistics as the "gateway" course provides many students with content that is more relevant to their studies, keeping them engaged.

Co-enrollment is a widely accepted model, popularized by the Community College of Baltimore County's (CCBC) Accelerated Learning Program. In 2007, administrators at CCBC noticed that about two-thirds of their developmental English students failed to complete English 101 in four years. So they created a program allowing students who place in the top three levels of developmental English to concurrently take their remedial classes and English 101 with the same teacher.

Within a year, 81% of program participants earned college credits for English. In 2012, 50% of program participants enrolled in English 102—compared with just 13% of prior developmental course students. Since 2007, 90 institutions have copied CCBC's model. 

Other methods are more controversial, but can be beneficial. Dropping algebra as a required course is a contentious topic on many campuses, says Cooper. Critics resist removing the class, but advocates say students who are not pursuing STEM paths need other types of mathematical skills, like quantitative reasoning or statistics.

Another debate revolves around who should lead developmental classes. While many institutions leverage adjunct faculty to keep costs down, Brown insists schools will benefit from investing in full-time staff who have more time to aid students and are more engaged with the campus community (Cooper, Diverse Education, 10/21).

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